Sunday, November 23, 2014


My body can't yet handle aikido: the constant impacts drain my energy and still take several days to recover. (Recall that since we take turns, everyone spends roughly half of every aikido class falling down and getting back up.) I need to do a martial art, though. Nothing else transforms anger and aggression in quite the same way, and I've been noticing I'm more irritable this past few months.

But! I just watched Reclaiming the Blade, a very high-quality documentary about European martial arts, which are so far fallen into obscurity that most of us didn't know they existed. Of course they did: the human body is always the same, and swords around the world are still long, sharp pieces of metal, so there's no reason Europeans wouldn't have developed systems of killing each other every bit as sophisticated as (and having much in common with) the systems of Asia. There are philosophical and maybe moral differences, to be sure: there are distinct sets of ideas about how training can or should change you, and into what. Though, even that isn't as far out as you'd think, and the main element absent in Europeans systems seems to be the connections to attentional training like Zen.

The Bay Area is practically the nation's Nerd Capital, so of course there are multiple ongoing groups here. There's a place in Santa Clara which even has the no-nonsense URL, and then there's a chapter of Schola Saint George. The latter meets on Sunday afternoons for 2 hours, in a park in Mountain View, so I went there today.

It's fun, and not exhausting! My years of aikido are a big help, because (a) I already know how to use a sword much better than your average human, and (b) I can also fight without a sword, which is where a lot of European techniques end up (grabbing one sword or the other, or moving in close for a non-sword attack, just like aikido).

I used a very heavy two-handed steel practice sword, which was fun, and heavy. My steel Japanese katana weighs about 2.25 pounds; I'm guessing today's monster was 3.5-4 pounds, which is on the heavy side for swords.

[The group website actually has links to equipment, and it's this thing. As I thought, 3 lbs. 10 ounces.]

It was fun! 4 of the other 5 people were more or less exactly the kind of college-age geeks you'd expect to be doing this, plus one very strong-looking barrel-gutted guy with a t-shirt from a jujitsu club. The text they work from is Fiore dei Liberi, who wrote a pretty complete arms manual. We started with "the sword with two hands," then moved on to "the sword in armor." The latter is a little unsettling because the standard attack is to grab your sword blade--called "half-swording"--and try to jam the point into one of the less-protected spots in your opponent's armor. (This makes sense if you think about it, since cutting attacks with a steel sword are useless against steel armor.)

In aikido, we spend a lot of attention specifically not touching the blade, and in general that seems like the way to go. Half-swording, though, can be done not only with armored gauntlets, but also with leather, and also...bare-handed. I'm still a little fuzzy on how this is accomplished, but this gentleman does some demos:

When I talk to people who are skittish about knives, and worry when I run my thumb perpendicular to the blade to check the edge, I try to get them to understand that knives don't cut anything in that direction. You can put a blade right on your thumb, and as long as you don't move along the blade, you're not going to get cut. You can take a super-sharp knife, and press it into a tomato, and if you're only pressing down, you'll just squish the tomato. So in theory, you can half-sword without cutting yourself, and the guy in the video goes into that. I think I'll pass, though.

Half-sword techniques are more or less like the aikido short staff (jo), and regular techniques have a lot of positions and movements in common with Japanese sword.

And most importantly, I wasn't a complete husk afterwards. So hopefully this can be a thing that I do.

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